A sermon preached at Evensong in Salisbury Cathedral on Sunday 26 August by Canon Edward Probert, Acting Dean
(Exodus 4.27-5.1; Hebrews 13.16-21)
‘Obey your leaders and submit to them.’ We heard that phrase tonight in the second reading, from the end of the letter to the Hebrews. Encountering Scripture should evoke a response, and I can tell you quite simply my response to that – it makes my hackles rise. ‘Obey’ and ‘submit’ are words which barely exist in my vocabulary, and I believe systems based on obedience and submission are dangerous.
We don’t have to look far to see horrible examples to reinforce my view, even if we narrow it to the field of Christian religion. National news in the last week or two has included scandals of past criminal abuse of children in orphanages in Ireland, in major Roman Catholic boarding schools in England, and in evangelical summer camps for public schoolboys in England. The church cultures surrounding these have been defensive and authoritarian; the patterns of behaviour have been deference to those up the hierarchy, and of drawing up of the protective wagons around those in power whose behaviour has been questioned. Grave and cruel injustices have been done, and it is not an excuse to say ‘We trusted people because of their status in the Church’, or ‘The Bible says we must obey our leaders and submit to them’.
Wrong is wrong, and must be challenged. Of course wrongdoers will normally try to manipulate the strings of power and ensure they are beyond question – which is all the more reason to ensure that questions are asked, heard, and answered.
The Christian Church is not a factory producing human products, all believing and behaving the same and functioning neatly and tidily. It is a changing community composed of strange and complex people like each of us. That means that it will always be to some extent unmanageable, at risk of being out of control in all sorts of ways. Which is why all churches have structures and rules of one kind or another. But the art of Christian leadership is not to make a god of the rules and the structures – that’s as dangerous an idol as the golden calf made by Aaron.
Controlling systems work both ways: they can make things more comfortable for the led as well the leaders. Mussolini made the trains run on time. And being under an authority which is beyond question allows the underlings to blame those above them – the plaintive cry of the war criminals at Nuremburg was that they were ‘only obeying orders’.
But we are all members of the body of Christ; we all have to take common responsibility for its life and actions. That means to be ready to challenge and question and suggest, not simply to accept. And we also have to take a common responsibility to respond to unwelcome criticism in ways that are constructive and not merely defensive. To see institutional discomfort as the grit in the oyster, rather than as sand in the machine.
Of course to be a leader can be very uncomfortable; as we pray for all people according to their need, we should pray for and respect those who lead in all walks of life, including the Church. And please pray for Nick Papadopulos as he prepares to become leader of this cathedral in a week’s time, that he may help us to be a community from which, out of all its inevitable tensions, may emerge pearls of godliness.